Celeste Burnum says BFT’s ‘Marjorie Prime’ touches on several important themes

The cast of “Marjorie Prime” (Christopher Charleston, Timothy Seale, Celeste Burnum and Holly Dikeman) at the opening-night reception at Birmingham Festival Theatre.

Celeste Burnum is quick to point out that though she has the title role in Birmingham Festival Theatre’s production of “Marjorie Prime,” she’s not the star.

“The title can lead you to believe it’s all about this person, which it is not,” she says. “It’s about a family. It’s very much an ensemble piece.”

And that’s about the clearest thing the actress – who has delighted audiences for decades on local and regional stages – can say about “Marjorie Prime.”

A drama with some elements of science fiction, Jonathan Harrison’s 2014 play (made into a 2017 movie) defies a handy one-sentence description. The “Prime” in the title refers to AI versions of deceased characters who appear in the show, including Marjorie’s husband, Walter, who appears as a 30-year-old because that’s how Marjorie, battling dementia, remembers him.

In addition to Burnum, the cast includes Holly Dikeman, Timothy Seale and Christopher Charleston.

“When I first read it, my immediate response was no, because it deals with some dark things,” says Burnum, who lives in Vestavia Hills with her husband, Jim Burford. “My character is 85 and has dementia, so that scared me. But then I found out some of the cast members who were going to be in it, and that’s when I said yes. I really wanted to work with the ensemble that he was getting together.”

“He” is director Jonathan Sweatt, whom Burnum calls a “prince of a person.”

“He is such a wonderful guy, so bright and caring,” she says. “So it was the people who were involved in the work more than the work itself at first. But this play is definitely a play that grows on you.”

Sweatt describes the play this way:

“Marjorie is 85 years old and struggling with dementia. She’s moved in with her daughter Tess, and Tess’s husband, Jon, who take care of her, despite Marjorie and Tess’s long-strained relationship. Here to help preserve Marjorie’s memories is Walter Prime, a product of artificial intelligence presenting as Marjorie’s late husband, Walter. As Marjorie talks with Walter and relives her memories, long-avoided family secrets resurface, showing what happens when grief is swept under the rug.”

There are a number of different themes at work in “Marjorie Prime,” says Burnum, whose research included visiting St. Luke Episcopal Church’s Founders Place, where her cousin, Susanna Whitsett, is executive director.

“I think it’s about family,” she says of the play. “It’s about love. It’s about loss and what happens when we don’t deal with our loss and how that can affect our present relationships.

“It’s really a lovely piece,” Burnum adds. “You will laugh, you will cry, and it will leave you thinking, for sure. I think we have a wonderful show.”

“Marjorie Prime,” at Birmingham Festival Theatre through May 5.

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